Matt Blackwell recommends New Orleans
New Orleans is an American city without parallel. Founded on the banks of the Mississippi River almost 300 years ago by French settlers, the city has retained large aspects of its colonial history and a strong European influence is discernable even to this day. The major port and largest city in the state of Louisiana was devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, but the resilient residents have bounced back and emerged stronger than ever.
The Big Apple, with its hustle and bustle is all well and good, but the Big Easy will undoubtedly win you over with its quaint charm, relaxed style of living and strong Cajun flavour.
My favourite place
New Orleans has always been a city of music and was instrumental in the emergence of jazz in the early days of the 20th century. The French Quarter is the vibrant heart and soul of the city’s music scene and Bourbon Street is where the pulsating rhythm beats loudest.
Live bands can be found at almost all of the bars and cafés that line the streets and no matter what time or day of the week, you’re guaranteed to find them packed to the rafters. Whether you fancy a spontaneous dance to something upbeat from the many street performers, or want to relax with a spot of jazz, you’re sure to find the right music to suit your mood on Bourbon Street.
The atmosphere of the area is one of constant carnival, with music spilling out from various cafés and onlookers from the balconies above raining the traditional Mardi Gras throws (beads, doubloons and cups) on the revellers below, putting almost everyone in a good mood. You certainly don’t see many frowns on Bourbon Street. Hours can be spent taking a slow and meandering walk up and down the streets of the French Quarter and this is a great way to absorb the sights and sounds of this colourful city.
The city is perhaps most famous for Mardi Gras, a celebration that takes place in February each year and lasts around two weeks. Arriving in summer, I sadly missed the festivities, but thousands of tourists flood the city during Mardi Gras to catch a glimpse of the elaborately designed carnival floats in one of the many parades that pass through. The food of New Orleans is also worth a mention. Over the centuries, the city has acted as a cultural melting pot and this has had a unique effect on the cuisine. Strong French, Creole, African and Caribbean influences have all left their mark on the menus of restaurants. Make sure you try out some form of gumbo and jambalaya and, if you’re up for the challenge, you can always attempt to tackle one of the unfeasibly large “po-boy” sandwiches.
The summer days in New Orleans are more often than not hot and humid, but we also experienced several extremely heavy downpours that appeared without warning. The hurricane season runs from June through to the end of November, with the most active month being September.
The French Quarter is also home to the French Market, which spreads over six blocks, making it the perfect place to pick up the kind of trinkets and curios you won’t find anywhere else – think ornamental alligator heads and dozens of carnival masks. Several food stalls can also be found and it would almost constitute a sin to leave Louisiana without trying alligator in some form or another. After all, as the sign at one stall read: “You can’t beat ’gator meat”.
Where to stay
We stayed at one of the many hostels that can be found a short and reasonably priced tram ride away from the main action New Orleans has to offer. Of course, this may not to be to everyone’s taste and there are numerous hotels on offer in and around the French Quarter.